Reports from South Asia

A few words about my stint with Poets Translating Poets: a German-Marathi Encounter

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Andrea Fernandes Photo: Goethe-Institut / Andrea Fernandes

The process of literary translation has received worldwide acknowledgement today, it has arrived in a big way on the literary scene – literary translation is a delightful process indeed, but more importantly, it is full of challenges and an uphill task.

Aruna Dhere; Photo: Andrea Fernandes India, a multilingual country, is proud to have more than 25 official living languages, along with the respective independent dialects. We creative writers give expression to our musings against this rich backdrop of Indian culture. This culture itself is an intricate weave of conventions, traditional customs and practices.

Through her poetry, each poet is either in concurrence with this heritage or asynchronous with it – she accepts a few elements, rejects a few. Each poet connects differently with the contemporary aspects, with individuals and groups in her surroundings and her own observation and exploration also vary – all these factors make it extremely difficult to formulate an all-encompassing concept of Indian poetry. World poetry is even more difficult to define.

It cannot be a mere hobby or just a favorite pastime to translate French, Russian, Spanish, English or German poetry. Reading the international poetry, understanding and interpreting it and then translating it – all these activities collectively enrich me as a poet, help me grow.

Today, a new era of translation has begun. Two centuries ago, a similar epoch had begun and ended in India. After almost another century, we have restarted the process. The journey of our literary pursuits from one pivotal era of translation to another can be described as the journey of the Indian mind - our sagacious literary grasp and perception of substance of life. This is our journey towards an integrated universality. The first era of translation that we experienced was an outcome of colonialism. During that period, we primarily translated Western literature, chiefly English.

Today, our understanding of translation has changed, it’s scope has widened. Sincere and serious writers are entering the orbit of translation. To quote Subodh Sarkar, translation is becoming the gateway of democracy in literature. It won´t be out of place to state that the literature rooted and generated in one country is reaching farther destinations and residing in many other countries, like the Indian diaspora.

While the entire world is involved in this experiment of literary democracy, the Goethe Institut – known as Max Mueller Bhavan within India - has taken a deliberate decision to play a significant role in this context. Poetry is a very sensitive genre of literature. Through this medium, the poets from all over the world are entering a common periphery, carrying along their own literary culture, traditions and respective cultural heritage. A unique methodology is at work, when a poet translates another poet´s poem – it is worth praising.

Subodh Sarkar quotes another poet-friend: “…beauty and honesty are rare companions. Today, there are many such “escorted poems” doing rounds worldwide in the huge basin of literatures, carrying the infamous tag of being beautiful.”

In case we accept this reality, the programme initiated by Goethe-Institut gains even more importance. It marks the beginning of a very significant, deeply intense and meaningful literary exchange, by means of a method called interlinear translation, thus leaving almost no room for misinterpretation, dishonesty, ambiguity, superficiality and erroneous transfer of a poet´s intent.

About my experience of participation in the process “poets translating poets”:

This entire process proved to be truly interesting. I engaged with the idea of translation at two levels:

Firstly, I tried to gain a linguistic understanding, dealing with the meaning of the word – semantics - followed by the complete syntactic structure of the poem.

Then came the advanced level of understanding the spirit, gist of it.

The next task was to select appropriate words, arrange the lines and determine the structural shape of the poem.

The interlinear translator could help me to a large extent at the first level. With her help, I could unfold many finer shades of the meaning of a word. For example, a poem by Ulrike Draesner had a title – Rohling - Schulbeginn, which literally means, Paper Funnel - First day of School. In Marathi, it is called a cone. But the translator pointed out yet another meaning of the same word: Raw material - Incomplete, unprocessed material. Something, that is yet to attain completion – Rohling. Schulbeginn. Even the title of the poem has two distinct meanings.

Once I understood this meaning at the semantic level, the entire poem unfolded in front of my mind´s eye, with its intrinsic meaning. I came to realize, how the symbolism of that cone, the paper funnel has become the central axis of this poem. It moves on the surface level with the linguistic meaning of a cone, and dwells on the meta-level, lifting the experience and enriching the meaning from within.

In the poem, there is a ribbon tied around the cone, there are images of elephants drawn on it – elephants have a sense of time as a category, they are intelligent animals, they have emotions, they have memory, they can cry. The girl in the poem wears tiny shoes made of calf leather. There is an allusion to her milk teeth. These small yet significant shades of meaning intertwined with the symbolic motifs intensify and fulfill the experience presented in the poem.

This special custom of giving a cone full of condiments to the child on her first day of school started in Germany way back in 1810. In Maharashtra, we offer a spoonful of fresh yogurt to the person embarking upon a new venture. Ulrike´s poem opened doors to the significance of this German tradition. Then that cone became a symbol of all children´s life, their present and future. The translation flowed easily.

I translated yet another poem by Ulrike that uses an image of an imminent death of a mouse as a symbol to make a statement. This motif is used to signify the extinguishing love between a couple, the death of their relation.

Both poems gave me an insight into Ulrike´s style of poetic writing. On the surface it appears simple and easy, but her poetry has a complex weave of words depicting deep experiences and perceptions.

Yet another intriguing poem by Ulrike is “What is Poetry”. It carries the English title. This is a very woman-centric poem. A woman - tolerant, diligent, forgiving, understanding, straight-forward yet loving - constantly torn apart and embroiled in the routine rigmarole of life. She subconsciously awaits that one magic, restful moment, which assures her own space, gives her an opportunity to discover her own self and explore the un-illuminated depths of her creative soul.

It was a wonderful experience to translate this poem. We were five women in the group, three poets and two interlinear translators involved in this translation process, we could easily sail through this experience. Understanding was easy, empathizing followed, and translation happened smoothly.

Yet, during translation we also paid appropriate attention to the formal elements of the poem and the specific poetic style which enhanced the scope of its meaning.

The meaningless routine, mundane hustle-bustle and nonsensical everyday activities are written in longish, prosaic sentences, then there was a pregnant pause, then followed a stylistic element - small lines containing less number of words, the pace became soft and subtle, leading to the experience of inner peace. We felt connected from within, we sensed a kind of camaraderie. We joined hands in the no-man´s-land, beyond the languages.

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Andrea Fernandes Translating the poems by Thomas Kunst was a totally different experience altogether – rather tough. Thomas writes flowing sentences in a simple language register, his language is not flowery. His style of expression is fresh and new for me. This expression form is complex and a bit difficult. I would like to refrain from using the jargon such as modernity, post-modernity etc. But Kunst´s style blurs the boundaries between the past and present, both dimensions keep visiting each other and merging into each other at regular intervals, I am referring to his poem about Mombasa Island.

In this poem, Thomas Kunst is talking about love. I am well acquainted with renderings of love. I can also understand, how the past emotions erupt like a seething volcano from the crevices of the present. But in his poetry, Kunst experiences the here-and-now present tense in flesh and blood, while he inhales the experiences from the past along with his breath.

A woman forms the focal point of his experience and perception. A woman, standing at the banks of the past, makes his present life meaningless and lackluster. In one of his poems, Hilde has just disappeared without a trace - after the two lovers met and spent time together. She has accidently (?) left behind her jacket. The poet is trying to fit into that jacket. He wants to reduce his body size to attain this. He tries to become smaller and smaller. Line by line he tries to turn tinier, so diminutive, that one wonders, whether he wants to fit into the jacket or into the tiny frame of his lover.
The poem describes the deep struggle, the big difficulty involved in these attempts and his incessant endeavor to reduce his size and fit into her jacket. Initially, I did not actually grasp the inner semantics of this poem, although the interlinear translator had provided the verbatim translation. But the real meaning still eluded me.

I kept revisiting the poem and I suddenly had that insightful moment – I realized, that this poem could be a process of surrendering or immersion of the supreme male ego- certainly a painful and difficult process. But it is mandatory for the masculine element to surrender in order to understand the feminine.

Maybe, that´s the reason, why Kunst speaks the masculine language, speaks of physical efforts he is making, refers to the physical domain all along, but at the same time he points out, that this physical process is torturous and it is rendering him weak, feeble, sluggish.

In this poem, he is talking to his beloved, confessing to her. He has had a deep, intimate physical relationship with her. For me, this entire poem signifies a man, who is sincerely trying to understand a woman and getting hurt in the process.

This is a poem describing the masculine trials and tribulations - a poem with immense depth, offering an honest and genuine account of the poetic self. After this realization, the poem was neither difficult to comprehend nor to translate.

The English version is written originally in Marathi by Aruna Dhere.
Translated in English by Jayashree Joshi